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Rediscovered Japanese Peace Bell thank-you letter presented to Duluth

A 69-year-old act of reconciliation continues to inspire.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, left, and Barbara Auerbach, daughter of former Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson, ring the Peace Bell
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, left, and Barbara Auerbach, daughter of former Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson, ring the Peace Bell in Enger Park during a ceremony Tuesday in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Barbara Auerbach recently rediscovered a significant piece of local history: a 1954 thank-you letter brimming with appreciation for the return of a temple bell to Ohara, Japan, and addressed to her father, former Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson.

She found the handwritten four-page letter from the then-mayor of Ohara, Yukimasa Tsuchiya, squirreled away in some of her father’s papers that had been stored in the garage of her recently deceased sister.

At a ceremony Tuesday afternoon in Enger Park’s Japanese Peace Garden, Auerbach presented the correspondence to Mayor Emily Larson, in hopes that the document becomes an accessible part of the public archive going forward.

Barbara Auerbach, daughter of former Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson, reads the 1954 letter her father received from the mayor of Ohara
Barbara Auerbach, daughter of former Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson, reads the 1954 letter her father received from the mayor of Ohara, Japan, in front of the Peace Bell replica.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

As World War II drew to a close, many troops took home war trophies, including a large bell from an Ohara temple that wound up on display in the Duluth City Hall. A visiting Japanese scholar later recognized the bell and informed city officials of its origins.

When Mayor Johnson learned of the missing bell, he took it upon himself to help bring about its return to Ohara.

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“For him, it was an act of humanity and just the right thing to do,” Auerbach said.

”My family was very proud of the role my father played in the decision to return the bell, and I know he’d be very happy to see its ongoing impact on the relationship between these two cities,” she said.

In the letter to Johnson, Tsuchiya described how the bell had been received by residents waving Japanese and U.S. flags, followed by a procession to a hilltop bell tower, where it was raised to ring over the city for the first time in years.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson holds onto the original 1954 letter to former Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson from the mayor of Ohara, Japan
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson holds onto the original 1954 letter to former Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson from the mayor of Ohara, Japan, thanking him for the return of the bell taken from the town as a World War II war trophy.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“You can guess how they were excited to see and hear the bell again,” he wrote, later adding: “Nothing makes a man’s mind more pure and clear than the sound of a Japanese bell.”

Ohara residents decided to dub the installation the American-Japanese Peace Bell, and Tsuchiya wrote: “I am fully convinced it will promote the friendly relations between America and Japan and the world peace by ringing the bell day by day.”

Auerbach said the sincere heartfelt sentiment of the letter was clear, even if some of the grammar was amusing.

Ohara-Isumi, Japan, and Duluth became official sister cities in 1990, a relationship that endures to the present day.

Gale Kerns, treasurer of Duluth Sister Cities International, noted that the Japanese counterpart community was considerably smaller than Duluth at the time it gained “sister” status and would have made for an unusual partner even though it shares some maritime attributes.

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“But the bell cinched it,” he said.

In 1994, Ohara officials made a reciprocal gift of a replica bell, which has become the centerpiece of Duluth’s Japanese Peace Garden.

Barbara Auerbach, daughter of former Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson, gets ready to ring the Peace Bell replica
Barbara Auerbach gets ready to ring the Peace Bell.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Larson thanked Auerbach for the gift of her father’s letter, saying: “It feels important now, as we experience the increasing fragility in the world, to really pause and to celebrate the connections that we have. And sister cities help to remind us why we need to pay attention to people around the world, why it’s important to look outside of Duluth, Minnesota and the United States, to be reminded of who we are and who we can be when we are in covenant with one another.”

Ben Thwaits, executive director of Duluth Sister Cities International, reflected back on the return of the bell, putting it in a bit of historical context at a time when the U.S. occupation of Japan following World War II was still a fresh memory.

“I can imagine that the feelings in both Duluth and Ohara weren’t necessarily the friendliest that one can imagine. There was probably still a lot of tension and hard feelings and family members still dealing with the loss of their husbands or brothers,” he said.

Yet Thwaits said that against this backdrop, Johnson demonstrated courage.

“Just think of how bold of a move this was on the part of Mayor Johnson and on the part of the mayor of Ohara, to very intentionally choose to transcend those divisions that had been so set in stone for so many years,” he said.

“So, what I take from that is that to honor the work of Mayor Johnson, and to honor this letter, what we can do is to choose to be as bold as he was in thinking about how to create a more peaceful and connected world. If we’re doing things that feel safe, that feel comfortable, it’s probably not going to move the dial enough to make a real difference,” Thwaits said in a final call to action.

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Auerbach and Larson joined together to ring Duluth’s replica Peace Bell at the end of Tuesday’s ceremony.

SEE ALSO:
Last Friday evening, foggy and cool, found a distinguished crowd gathered to dedicate the new Japanese garden surrounding the Peace Bell in Enger Park.

Related Topics: HISTORY
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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